As part of our Big Lottery ‘Awards for All’ project we’ve been on the hunt for interesting news stories from newer, younger social enterprises that help illustrate new, changing and emerging trends in the sector.
We’ve been posting these stories on the blog under the overall title of ‘The changing face of social enterprise’ and you can read all the stories we’ve covered so far.
Today’s story concerns a social enterprise idea that is still in the very early stages of development. But it helps illustrate a crucial difference between social entrepreneurs and more conventional business people. Read on and we’ll explain.
For many, the process of social enterprise development is a kind of activism, and is deeply informed by a grassroots, DIY, ‘give it a go’ outlook that permeates all kinds of activism. It may even involve a degree of personal sacrifice.
The social entrepreneurs and community activists behind Liberty Cookhouse are a case in point. Dave Conroy, who has a background in refugee support as well as being a serial food business entrepreneur, has brought this development group together.
“A couple of years ago,” Dave explains, “I started the setup of an idea for a ‘community kitchen’ based social enterprise. Not a restaurant, or a simple catering business. What I had in mind was an industrially equipped commercial community kitchen aimed at refugees and people who want to start food businesses. I didn’t get very far because I quickly got busy again in my freelance work and it’s hard not to worry about paying the bills.”
But the idea didn’t die. Far from it.
“Two years on,” Dave says, “I felt the timing was better, certain things were happening that linked so well with the initial idea so we had to jump. I took the decision to drop to two days a week working from October through to the end of March 2018, spending the rest of the time working with others who want to help make Liberty Cookhouse a practical reality.” There are now over twenty people involved in developing the idea.
The business needs to succeed as commercial operation — of course it does — but for a particular reason. Dave believes that only by being financially sustainable and independent can the Liberty Cookhouse work flexibly and nimbly enough to ensure that it achieves the very best employment and support outcomes for the refugee client group it will support. “This isn’t about getting people onto an endless conveyor belt of ‘courses’,” he says. “It’s about a commercial business-to-business kitchen that can take advantage of new trends in the food market — home delivery, food production for third parties, offering a commercial business incubation space for food entrepreneurs — and turn these into real, ethical employment opportunities for refugees and others who, despite their resourcefulness and determination, are marginalised in the labour market.”
Food business incubators are a huge growth market in the US, where it is estimated that 86% of such facilities turn a profit within three years. The UK so far has no similar movement to support the incubation of food businesses.
The enterprise hopes to establish a space with community partners in Smethwick, very close to the site of the new Midland Metropolitan super hospital. “We believe the new hospital offers a concentration of potential customers of different sorts for special diets, culturally specific food and NHS supply,” says Dave. “There will also be a huge labour force there needing to be fed.”
Many new trends in the food market at present represent a race to the bottom — low wages, zero hours contracts, and off-site food preparation in ‘dark kitchens‘ run by tech billionaire companies. “These markets trends won’t go away,” Dave says, “but we don’t believe the food sector has to be this way. A co-operatively owned and managed cookhouse can be run ethically, can deliver quality employment opportunities for those who most need them, and can help other food enterprises get off the ground. There is a space in the fast-moving food marketplace for an ethical business focused on quality, value, good employment practices and the creation of fair and equitable jobs. And we believe that Liberty Cookhouse is that business. It’s an idea whose time has arrived.”